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How To Work With Subject Matter Experts

By: Andrea May, Fiona Quigley, and Dawn Mahoney

A solid relationship with your subject matter experts vital to your training project success. Kick off your project well at the beginning of your working relationship and the rest of the process will progress more smoothly. Here are six keys points to remember to get your project started on the right foot.

 Subject Matter Expert Project Kickoff

1. Build Rapport

Do this early—as in, immediately. Ask questions that aren’t of a deeply personal nature, but that convey your interest in getting to know your SME as an individual person. And, keep the momentum going throughout the life of the project. Having a solid working relationship is helpful when challenges arise. (And they always do!)

2. Establish Point of Connection

Working with SMEs is easier the better you know them. As part of getting to know them and the rest of your project team, learn about their interests, and who they are away from work. Topics like favorite foods, sports teams, hobbies, or kids when you see pictures – all help with this.

3. Clarify Expectations

Ask your SME to clarify theirs first. Dates, deadlines, outcomes, format, etc. Ask clarifying questions and take good notes. When you have no more questions and have reiterated all key items, clarify your expectations. Keep it light, keep it simple, and in their terminology, not “instructional designer/developer speak.”

4. Clarify Roles

In addition to completing the project(s) on time and budget, your role is to make your SME(s) look good. To this end, ask them to explain, in detail, exactly who is to be involved in the project. This detail includes roles within the organization, their team, etc.

5. Explain Protocols & Procedures

Address how you’ll communicate with each other and members of the project team. Who has final authority? Who will be signing off? Lay out the workflow. Use business terms, not “instructional designer/developer speak.

6. Suggestions: Permissions Granted

Let your SME(s) know their suggestions are valid and will be considered. Ask your SME for their ideas first. Listen. Take notes. Validate their choices and when appropriate, suggest variations and insert “have you thought about…” to get the wheels churning.

working with subject matter experts

Ask More And Better Questions

As strategic partners, we must be skilled at asking good questions, listening, and differentiating between the needs of our customers. Open-ended and high-gain questions will yield better content from your SME. Here’s how.

Closed vs. Open

Closed-Ended Questions: one word, yes, no, or short phrase is the only response required

Open-Ended Questions: requires a response that is more than yes, no, or a few words

Low-Gain vs. High-Gain

Low-Gain Questions: surface information that is not new information or details that move the dialogue forward

High-Gain Questions: actively seek information that furthers an inquiry, or dialogue, with additional insight and details

Ask your subject matter experts the right questions


Closed-Ended Questions

Open-Ended Questions

Low Gain Questions

High Gain Questions

More Types of Questions

Initial Impressions & Getting To Know

The Details

Focus In

In Conclusion

Working effectively with subject matter experts is absolutely critical for instructional designers and learning professionals who want to be successful. We simply cannot do our jobs without them. SMEs bring the content to life and provide both relevance and context. By recognizing each of the seven SME archetypes, and adjusting your approach to knowledge gathering and communication appropriately, you will accomplish your project goals more quickly while enjoying a more productive working relationship.

About The Authors:

Andrea May: Andrea has 20 years of experience consulting, designing, developing, and delivering customized training programs for large organizations.

Fiona Quigley: Fiona is a story seeker and collector, as she believes everyone has story that others might learn from. She applies her “geek” tendencies and skill with learning technologies at LogicEarth, based in Northern Ireland.

Dawn Mahoney: Dawn has 20+ years experiences designing and facilitating learning. Learning In The White Space, LLC is a presentation, instructional design and facilitation consultancy.

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